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The Future

Posted by obama the antichrist on November 6, 2009

A glimpse of the future: Robots aid Japan’s elderly residents

By Calum MacLeod, USA TODAY

TOKYO — It looks like a scene from Robocop or one of the Terminator movies: A human steps into a sleek robot suit and is miraculously transformed, suddenly capable of astonishing feats of strength.

But this is no sci-fi film — it’s a promotional video by Cyberdyne, a Japanese electronics company. It shows an elderly male patient with Parkinson’s disease being strapped into a robotic skeleton that, using sensors attached to the wearer’s skin, reacts to nerve impulses and moves its “arms” and “legs” accordingly.

The robotic suit, known as the Hybrid Assisted Limb (or HAL), is designed to boost its wearer’s strength by a multiple of 10. In July, it allowed the patient at the Seiko En nursing home in Tsurugashima, Japan, to walk for the first time in two years, Cyberdyne CEO Yoshiyuki Sankai says.

“I was surprised,” Sankai admits. “I expected him to stand up, but not to walk.”

From lifelike robots to other devices that will feed you or simply share a chat, Japan’s government and gadget-makers are pioneering a wave of products aimed at improving the lives of senior citizens around the world.

Japan is a global leader in electronics and robotics, and its population is aging even faster than the USA’s. So much of the technology being unveiled here is likely a preview of what’s ahead for American Baby Boomers as they move into their twilight years, says Majd Alwan, director of the Center for Aging Services Technologies, a Washington-based consortium of U.S. technology companies and researchers.

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“The aging crisis drove (Japan’s) government and scientific community to invest significantly in technologies for the elderly, and robotics in particular,” Alwan says.

He says some similar projects are in development in the USA, including research on home assistant robots at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, but nationwide the amount of money and manpower involved is “significantly lower” than in Japan.

Among the products in development in Japan: A robotic bed from Panasonic that transforms into a joystick-controlled wheelchair on the user’s spoken command. There’s also Riba, a robot nurse disguised as a giant teddy bear, which can lift patients weighing up to 134 pounds.

Those who merely are seeking companionship can turn to the robotic, seal-like pet known as Paro, which will hit U.S. stores before Christmas.

HAL will make its debut in the United States on Monday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging (AAHSA) in Chicago. The robotic suit has yet to find broad appeal in Japan — it’s expensive, at $2,400 for a month’s rental, and some users say they find it uncomfortable to wear.

Still, Alwan is among those who think HAL’s production costs will come down, and that it has potential for broad commercial use in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“If this technology had been available, probably my mother would not have had to spend the last four years of her life bed-ridden,” Alwan says. Other products hold similar promise, he says, calling Japan “the world leader in this field.”

Machines as caregivers

Japan’s competitive advantage in robotics began in the 1970s, when industrial robots were first developed to cut personnel costs, says Shoichi Hamada of the Japan Robot Association, an industry group. He counts at least 20 companies working in the elderly-care robot field now, and says the Japanese government elected in August has promised to help researchers get their products into the marketplace more quickly.

The idea of relying on inanimate caregivers has caused some misgivings in Japan, where 22.5% of the population is older than 65, compared with about 9% in the USA. The Health and Welfare Ministry in the nation of 127 million people announced in September that the number of those older than 100 had reached a record — 40,399.

“We have to ask whether it’s good to let machines be caregivers, and many say that people should be looking after other people,” Hamada says. “But the fact is that there will be more people who need care, and less people to provide it.”

That argument is echoed by Sankai, HAL’s creator. A science fiction aficionado with long hair and tinted glasses, he named HAL after the sinister supercomputer in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The name of his company, Cyberdyne, is itself an homage to the fictional firm behind the killer machines in the Terminator series.

Yet Sankai says one of his biggest challenges is to help potential customers overcome a distrust of gadgets engendered by images such as that of a robotic Arnold Schwarzenegger gunning down police.

“Unfortunately, most science fiction shows technology attacking humans,” Sankai says. He hopes to push both technology and popular attitudes toward the more “peaceful” image of AstroBoy, the Japanese robot hero whose Hollywood version is now showing in U.S. movie theaters.

The search for a user-friendly image led Japanese robot scientist Takanori Shibata all the way to Newfoundland, Canada, where he spent time filming and recording harp seals.

The final result, after 15 years of development and $15 million of mostly government funding, is Paro — a fuzzy, seal-like robot. The device, which is about the size of a large cat, is intended for seniors who are unable to care for real pets because they’re either too frail or they’re in a place such as a nursing home that forbids animals.

If you hold and pet Paro, tactile sensors under its fur make it interact — by moving its tail, or closing its eyes. Audio sensors allow Paro to respond to its name, greetings and praise. If it feels ignored, you’ll hear a life-like cry.

The key, Shibata says, is to persuade the owner to “accept Paro as a living thing.”

At a minimum price of $3,800, the device is still out of reach for many. But it has won converts at the Vinson Hall Retirement Community in McLean, Va., where four Paros have been in trials for therapeutic use since 2007.

Paros have helped calm anxious residents, coax smiles and communication from the depressed, and provide company for the lonely, says CEO and retired rear admiral Kathleen Martin. “You forget it’s a robot,” Martin says. “Some people think it’s almost a baby, and that’s a good thing, as it elicits a few little memories” from residents’ younger days.

The desire for a servant

Robots are commonplace in Japanese popular culture, from relatively low-tech Hello Kitty and Ifbot dolls to Sony‘s AIBO, a robot dog so beloved by some owners that they make birthday cakes for their metallic pooches.

The biggest challenge now facing Japanese technology companies is to produce more practical devices, says Tim Hornyak, the Canadian author of Loving the Machine, a book about Japan’s robot world.

He says the “Holy Grail” of Japanese developers has long been “to produce AstroBoy — a humanoid, companion robot.” Hornyak says such a robot is likely possible in the long run, but he worries that pursuit of a Jetsons-style “servant robot in the household. .. has blinded (Japanese companies) to more common, useful possibilities.”

That’s partially because it’s what many Japanese consumers seem to want.

At Tokyo‘s National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, science guide Masami Terada says she wants a housemaid robot to cook for and watch over her 94-year-old grandmother.

“She’s forgetting how to cook, and is alone when I am at work,” Terada says. “I wish the government could increase funding into robots.”

Tomoaki Kasuga, CEO of the robotics firm Speecys Corp. in central Tokyo, is among those exploring more viable products. Since helping design AIBO several years ago, he has moved on to a product he calls the “walking PC.”

Speecys describes the two-legged SPC101C, in development for four years, as the world’s first Internet robot. Responding to verbal commands, the device can read aloud e-mail, surf the Web, broadcast news channels and even dance on a desktop, Kasuga says.

“Elderly people don’t want to type on a PC, so voice communication is more important. Think of it like a new PC, but with arms and legs, not a keyboard,” he says.

Speecys plans to launch the device next year at a retail cost of $500 to $1,000. There are still a few kinks to be worked out with the design. “People like humanoid-type robots but, functionally, walking is unstable,” Kasuga explains, so the final product may boast wheels instead of legs.

Not everyone’s onboard

There are similar reservations about HAL, the robotic suit. At the Momiyamakai Elderly Care Facility, a two-hour train ride from Tokyo, HAL has been in trial use since September — with mixed results.

“I don’t want to use it again,” complains Takebuta Yunko, 77, a wheelchair user. Strapping on HAL’s limbs took her about 30 minutes. “It was hard to walk because of all the stuff around my legs. I felt I was about to fall,” she says.

Her therapist, Motohiro Fukui, says the device restricts motion, thus affecting balance.

At first, “I feared my job would be taken away,” Fukui says. “Having seen HAL, I feel confident there will still be jobs for me.”

Mitsuhiro Sakamoto, Cyberdyne’s chief operating officer, compares using HAL to riding a bicycle and says most users eventually catch on. A dozen HAL suits have been leased in Japan since January, and another 30 have been ordered, he says. The company plans to begin selling it in the USA within 18 months.

HAL has received $5.5 million in research funding from Japan’s government, which sees robotics as a growth industry in Japan, Western Europe, the United States and other countries that are aging quickly.

“We are following the government’s objective to create and develop this technology that might help create jobs and be exported abroad,” Sakamoto says.

The device certainly has its fans. Tomonori Kaneko, a caregiver at the nursing home where Cyberdyne filmed the promotional video, says he watched in awe on July 1 as HAL enabled not only the Parkinson’s patient, but another man with a spinal cord injury to walk again.

“I was really surprised,” Kaneko says. “But I think that he was more surprised than we were.”

Contributing: Chie Matsumoto

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7 Responses to “The Future”

  1. 1minionsopinion said

    Somebody ripped off an anime movie to build that thing. I’ve seen that movie. The old man is in a robotic bed that sustains his life, but kidnaps him basically because it knows he wants to see one more sunrise at some special spot before he dies or something. The makers of the bed somehow infused it with the memories of his dead wife, too, so of course she knows what he wants more than the doctors do. It’s a very sweet movie. Too bad I can’t remember the name of it.

    Like

  2. dorian said

    good post OTA! science and technology utilizing more robots than people realize. a lot of demand for robotics engineers and tech corporations are employing kids right out of college. i heard that japan, land of the awesome animes is a geek’s paradise with all the cool little gadgets you can buy. an interactive pc? wow. nerds will never leave home.

    Like

  3. obama the antichrist said

    um 1 is it astroboy?

    Like

  4. 1minionsopinion said

    Nope, it was just a one-off movie about a sentient bed and an old man. I’ve seen Astroboy. I haven’t seen the movie though. He doesn’t still have a rocket coming out of his ass does he?

    Like

  5. princessxxx said

    great post obama the antichrist.

    lots of heart surgeries are being done with robotics.

    1minionsopinion, a rocket coming out of his ass. hahahahah.

    Like

  6. princessxxx said

    Like

  7. dorian said

    awe-some!!

    Like

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